Digital outrage

By on January 24, 2011

(Virginian-Pilot photo)

Some editors say conflict is news. Animals draw attention, too. Dead ones can stoke outrage.

Mix in a little greed and waste, and you have the ingredients for freshening up an old story on the Outer Banks.

Normally, last week’s furor over hundreds of dead striped bass probably would not have spread much farther than local marine radios and docks.

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But this time, people in recreational fishing boats witnessed the carnage and digitally documented it.

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Tirades with photos about who was to blame blistered the Internet. One video weaved in dark metal music to dramatize the scene of floating fish carcasses.

Before long, television teams were rushing here to “get to the bottom of things.” It became big news.

Actually there really was not much new to get to the bottom of.

Every season, fish die when watermen scramble for optimum catches under dense layers of regulations and limits.

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State regulators say most of the dead fish the Saturday before last came from an overloaded net. But they acknowledged unconfirmed reports of trawlers dumping legal fish in favor of bigger ones to fill their daily limit of 50 stripers. The commercial guys are paid by the pound.

The state calls it high grading, questionable but legal.

Waste from tossing unwanted or undersized fish is a consequence of government regulations, although I have to believe that greed, and maybe desperation, come into play.

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The first flurry of Internet traffic denounced the trawlers, underscoring the tension between commercial and recreational interests. But discussion soon turned to how the rules encourage the waste. The culprit here was a regulation meant to protect the fish.

In the past, the problem would have been smothered by a federal and state system incomprehensible to anyone but knowledgable insiders.

In this case, a very public airing in pictures and plain language led to changing a 15-year-old rule within a week.

Instead of 50 stripers, each trawler can take 2,000 pounds daily when the fishery re-opens for three days this week. They can also share their catches with other boats. So maybe they won’t throw so many away.

Now that would be news.

Related: State changes rules after striped bass kill »

This column originally appeared in The Virginian-Pilot

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